95.7% of the land in Nebraska is used for farming and ranching, the highest percentage in the United States. Traditional farming methods have resulted in excessive soil erosion and damage to the health and fertility of the topsoil. Because the soil is a farmer’s most valuable resource, more and more farmers – often with assistance from their local University of Nebraska Extension Agent and Natural Resource Conservation District – are turning to reduced- and no- till farming methods to improve soil quality and reduce input costs. Many are also planting native grasses and/or trees on steep slopes and along waterways, improving the quality of surface water in the process.
Among a growing number of those successfully balancing production with conservation are Paul and Jeryl Kettleson who farm in northeastern Boone County. The Kettlesons farm approximately 1,500 acres, raising corn, soybeans, alfalfa, cows and calves. The Kettlesons understand the importance of a balanced approach to working the land and in 2007 were featured as “Master Conservationists” in the Omaha World-Herald for their success in “nurturing the environment.”
One of the advantages the Kettlesons have realized from no till planting – a system that plants seeds directly into the previous year’s stalks – is that this stubble dramatically reduces erosion and improves water retention. This allows the Kettlesons to delay irrigating until later in the season, saving both water and money. The Kettlesons also use electronic monitors implanted at different soil depths to make sure they apply the right amount of water when needed.
By utilizing cost-share programs offered by the government, the Kettlesons have been able to plant more than 1,000 trees to help hold the soil, creating a number of riparian barrier strips along the Shell Creek and preventing soil, water and chemicals from running into the creek. Even during heavy rains, runoff from fields is nearly nonexistent.
The Kettlesons are not alone; many farmers today understand that to endure upon this land they must work in harmony with it. Organic farming and livestock operations are taking hold, with area farmers joining together to market their produce through cooperative efforts.
Land conservation doesn’t have to be done on a large scale to have an impact. In 2011 the Omaha World-Herald named Brian and Catherine Wright the winners of their Master Conservationist award in the residential catagory. Though limited to only 40 acres, the Wrights have planted a woodlot with ash trees as well as a variety of plants intended to create habitat for wildlife. The Wrights mow paths so they can go walking. They frequently see pheasants, foxes, deer and rabbits.